(Sept. 9) Just grow up. That, in effect, is the message leaders in the Florida citrus industry have for the state’s grapefruit growers — and for the fruit itself.

Facing declining consumption and market share, the Citrus Administrative Committee, Lakeland, Fla., recommended in May to increase minimum maturity standards for grapefruit. On Aug. 28, the U.S. Department of Agriculture obliged by publishing an interim final rule in the Federal Register.

The rule increases the minimum maturity requirements from 7.5% soluble solids and a 7-to-1 ratio of solids to acid to an 8% minimum on soluble solids and a 7.5-to-1 solids-to-acid ratio. The sliding scale minimum for the solids-to-acid ratio was raised from 6-to-1 to 7.2-to-1.

Don’t let the numbers bore you. The result should be sweeter grapefruit that brings consumers back time and again. No more bitter, immature early-season fruit. No more frustrated consumers. And, hopefully, no more frustrated markets.

Demand for grapefruit has slipped over the years, as has profitability for Florida’s growers, who have been overproducing for years. As groves were removed and consumer demand slackened, domestic fresh shipments of Florida grapefruit declined from 18.6 million cartons in 1996-97 to 11.6 million cartons in the 2000-01 season, according to the committee.

Even more striking is that Florida’s market share for U.S. fresh grapefruit fell from 71.7% in 1990-91 to 44% in 2000-01, according to the Florida Department of Citrus. Texas, which ships grapefruit with a minimum maturity standard of 9% for soluble solids and a 7.2-to-1 solids-to-acid ratio, has taken much of the share.

Perhaps the interim rule on Florida grapefruit will stick. Shippers have until Oct. 28 to petition for changes. Sure, some shippers will miss out on the ultraprofitable early-season markets. But the industry stands to gain in the long run by ensuring repeat business. In a commodity business, that’s what it’s all about.